Hungry Ghost Festival facts

Symbol of prayer: A devotee burning joss sticks while worshipping the Tai Su Yeah (King of Hades). Joss sticks serve as a medium to send blessings and prayers to the deities.

Practices and meaning behind month-long celebrations by Taoists and Buddhists

COLOURFUL flags inscribed with Chinese words, giant joss sticks and offerings placed along roadsides can be seen in numerous areas this month.

These items are currently commonplace as it is the Hungry Ghost Festival month, a time which is believed that souls from the netherworld pardoned by the Di Guan Da Di (ruler of the Earth) are released to the earthly realms to enjoy a one-month long “vacation.”

During this time, devotees will prepare food offerings and various forms of entertainment to appease the wandering souls so that they will not disturb the living.

StarMetro speaks to Federation of Taoist Associations Malaysia president Tan Hoe Chieow to understand the unique Chinese festival a little more. Here are 10 things you may not know about Hungry Ghost Festival.

1. Why they are hungry

The word “hungry” in the festival name is a reference to the state of the souls released into the world of the living.

This is when souls finally get to enjoy the abundance of food offerings laid out by devotees, after an extended period of suffering with little or no food.

The term “hungry ghost” is one with mainly Buddhist origins, as usually Taoist devotees refer to the festival as just “Ghost Festival.”

2. One festival, two faiths

Both Taoists and Buddhists celebrate Hungry Ghost Festival, but the religions’ practices and reason for the celebrations differ.

The celebration is known as Zhong Yuan Jie among Taoists, where devotees pay their respects to both their departed ancestors as well as other wandering souls, and conduct rituals (called chao du) to help lost souls to be reincarnated.

Buddhists refer to it as Yu Lan Pen Festival, which origins is said to have come from the story of Mulian who rescued his mother from suffering as a hungry ghost through his acts of merit and transferring the ensuing merits to his mother to help her be reincarnated. Thus the focus of Buddhist devotees’ celebration is to help their departed kin to be reincarnated, by performing prayers and rituals in temples.

3. Filial piety is all-important

Most people assume that the festival is a time when souls roam free and terrorise people. Actually, it is more a time for the living to show filial piety and respect to deceased ancestors.

On the 15th day of the seventh month in the Chinese lunar calendar, devotees will pay their respects to their deceased ancestors in their own homes.

Devotees are folding joss papers that will be burnt on the last day.
Devotees fold joss papers which is then packed up to be burnt on the last day of the festival.

4. Incense messaging

Joss sticks can be likened to an email or messaging system – the smoke emanating from it carries the devotee’s wishes and blessings to the deities.

There are large dragon joss sticks that are lit and planted by the roadside like sentinels, and the regular sized ones commonly used by devotees. Regardless of size, they serve the same purpose.

However, Taoism discourages excessive burning of joss sticks as caring for nature is very important in the religion.

5. The origins of paper offerings

The traditional Chinese practice of burning paper offerings is believed to have come from an ancient folklore of a Ming Dynasty emperor who had the ability to travel to the netherworld, and went there in search of his mother.

Upon finding his skinny mother in tattered dress and living in terrible conditions, the emperor was moved and immediately sought to bring gold and other necessities to her.

However, the guardian of the netherworld told him that physical things were not allowed to be brought over.

The only way to help his mother was for him to hammer the gold and silver into very thin wafers and stick them onto pieces of paper, then burning those to get that gold and silver transferred to her.

Similarly, burning houses made of paper and bamboo sticks will provide his mother a proper home where she was.

6. Soul entertainment

Kotai (singing performances) during Zhong Yuan Jie is in fact more for human entertainment than for the enjoyment of wandering souls and gods, as it is usually brought in by the festival organising committees to attract the crowds.

It is not a part of the Taoist practice.

Tan says Taoism does not encourage superstitious beliefs.
Tan says Taoism does not encourage superstitious beliefs.

The Federation of Taoist Associations Malaysia always made sure to advise the organising committees to ensure that performers were not scantily dressed as they were performing in public areas.

In Taoist practice, the highest form of entertainment offered to the souls as well as the gods during the celebration are puppet shows and Chinese opera.

7. Taboos

We constantly hear about the many taboos during the ghost month, such as avoid going out at night, swimming or getting married.

However, these are merely myths rather than religious beliefs, and Taoism does not encourage superstitious beliefs.

Those taboos are more likely cultural beliefs and old folk’s advice that has been passed down for many generations, or a word of caution from concerned parents.

8. Food that binds

A leader will be selected before the celebration of Zhong Yuan Jie, either by the committee or the Tai Su Yeah (King of Hades) to lead in the celebration.

The leader will be the one in charge of preparing the main offerings, which include fresh chicken, rice and roast pork. At the end of the celebration, the offerings will then be given away to the leader’s relatives and friends.

Devotees light up joss sticks while praying as it is believed that the smoke carries the blessings and prayers to God.
Devotees light up joss sticks while praying as it is believed that the smoke carries the blessings and prayers to God.

This practice consequently helps foster relationships between family members and friends.

9. Widely practised still

Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations are more widespread compared to years before, where celebrations were held only in certain areas.

Major places hosting the Hungry Ghost Festival celebrations in Klang Valley in the past include Jalan Pahang and 5th Mile, Jalan Ipoh in Kuala Lumpur, where an enormous crowd can be seen gathering at these areas for the celebration.

Now, with the increase in number of areas with their own Zhong Yuan Jie organising committees, large crowds may not be as apparent in the main celebration locations.

This may make it seem like fewer people are involved but in actual fact, the religious practice is more widespread compared to years ago.

10. A time for charity

The organising committee for the Zhong Yuan Jie celebrations of a particular area will usually contribute a large amount of offerings that include rice, instant noodles and biscuits.

At the end of the three-day celebrations, the offerings gathered will be donated to institutions for the needy, such as old folk’s homes and orphanages.

In addition, money will be raised during the celebration dinner commonly held at the end of the event and proceeds will usually be donated to schools and needy individuals like the sick and elderly, as well as temples.

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